There are two types of films that can take an actor into places they don’t want to go. The first is the passion project. When an actor is so devoted to bringing a project to light sometimes they don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, that it might not be the best project for them at that moment. The other is the vanity project. When an actor wants to be able to show something off, or indulge in excess for the sake of, the results are sometimes not what they intended. And The Gunman, based off the novel “The Prone Gunman,” is meant to give us a new image of two time Oscar winner Sean Penn. Penn, a one time tabloid star in his youth who has since become one of the finest actors of his generation, has opted to try and turn himself into an action star (complete with pumped up physique) as he nears his mid 50s ala Liam Neeson.
And unfortunately it comes off about as well as a Steven Seagal action film.
The big difference is how we look at Penn through this. Except instead of pitying Penn like we do Seagal, who has tried to reinvent himself as an MMA svengali and gotten journalists to indulge his fantasies as a covert CIA agent in the past couple years, there’s a sense of anger we feel at him for being in a film like this. Seagal is a self-parody many times over at this point; we expect the pretentiousness and awful films (and film choices) from a direct to the Wal-Mart discount bin headliner like Seagal. We expect great things from Penn, who actually has talent and one would hope enough self awareness to not star in a film that has a cast (and headliner) that should dictate brilliance instead of sheer, profound terribleness.
Simple premise. Jim (Penn) is a former mercenary with a past that is about to catch up with him. Having pulled off an assassination of an elected official of note for mining interests, he’s now on the hunt as the people behind it are cleaning up the mess he left. Now the former black ops mercenary is on the run in a globe trotting adventure, trying to stay alive long enough to figure out who’s pulling the strings behind the near endless wave of goons trying to end him.
To say the film is awful would be an understatement. It’s the front runner for worst of the film and right now might be a front runner for worst film to be released into theatres this decade.
The problems begin, and end, with Penn. Penn, who got in the best shape of his career for the part, has seemingly taken what could’ve been a fairly perfunctory role and turns it into an opportunity to make a film about how much of a tough guy he is. Penn, who had a hand in writing the film, has turned the film into an opportunity to either show off his newfound buff physique or have seemingly every character in the film show how much smarter, tougher and better he is than everyone else. This is Seagal level chicanery that normally would be the sort of screenwriting level shenanigans of low brow, low budget action films. Jim isn’t a good human being, not in the slightest, but the film doesn’t want to portray him as a former killer for hire he used to be.
One has to give credit to Penn for getting in remarkable shape. He has to remind us of how yoked he is throughout, with as many scenes without his shirt off as Matthew McConaughey would in the similar role, but credit Penn for at least looking the part. Unfortunately one wishes he spent as much time working on the screenplay as he did working on his physique as Jim Terrier might be the worst character he’s ever played.
It certainly won’t be something he’ll be bragging about playing six months from now … unless it’s a photo shoot for a fitness magazine.
Jim’s the equivalent to being the hooker with the heart of gold; Jim is a bad human being, haunted by the memory of what he did, and yet the film tries to brush over on this with a soft touch. It’s a dishonesty on any number of levels and mainly serves to keep an audience from being forced to cheer for one villain against the others. Jim is positioned as the hero, despite being the lesser villain in a crowd of villains in the film, because he’s trying to at least come clean for the sins of his past. It’s an intellectual dishonesty we sniff out early and it’s fairly obnoxious.
The sad thing is that there’s so much potential in this film, and this cast, that the pandering to one actor feels so profoundly wrong for someone who’s normally as generous on screen as Penn is. It’s odd to see an actor who normally is tremendous on screen in terms of being a giving actor make so many others defer to how amazing he is in this one. It’s an ego trip for an actor who famously chastised Chris Rock during the Oscars for a throwaway joke about Jude Law. And that’s what this film feels like: a $40 million ego trip.
Universal presents The Gunman. Directed by Pierre Morel. Written by Don Macpherson, Sean Penn and Pete Travis based off the novel “The Prone Gunman” by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Starring Sean Penn, Ray Winstone, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Jasmine Trinca. Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes Rated R. Released on DVD: 6.30.2015
Tags: Idris Elba, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Sean Penn, The Gunman